The joy of our homecoming was too soon over. None had the strength left to stay aloft for long, and we all soon drifted, weary but grateful, to the ground. My heart was pulled in a dozen directtions at once. My joy at seeing my people come safe again to their ancient home, after an exile lasting full five thousand years, was uppermost. The Kantri, we whom the Gedri--no, Shikrar, in their tongue they are called humans--we whom the humans call True Dragons, were come home at last, to share this vast land with the only other creatures who speak and reason. I knew fear also, of course. In this place where we were largely forgotten as living creatures, where we were become little more than tales to frighten children, we had no way to know what our welcome might be. Behind and through all, however, was deep heart's-sorrow for Varien, my soulfriend Akhor, whose beloved wife Lanen had been stolen away mere days before.
I had not the leisure to give any of these feelings the attention they deserved, for I was bound to go and welcome my people to a land I had only known for the last four days. It was enough,I think, for most of them to see me here before them--Eldest, Keeper of Souls, guardian of our people in the place of their transformed King, Varien.
Most of the Kantri lay exhausted where they had landed. We all had flown, with only one brief rest, for many days on the back of the Winds. Our home for so many years, the Isle of Exile that the humans name the Dragon Isle, was gone. The earthshakes that had plagued us these last years had grown worse and worse, and at the last the fire mountains had erupted, spewing molten rock over our home. It was gone forever. We had had no choice. Kolmar was the home of our ancestors, after all, and it surely must be clear to the Gedri that neither caprice nor passing fancy drove us to dare the crossing of the Great Sea. The Winds had decided for us that it was time we returned. Our oldest teaching was clear: "First is the Wind of Change, second is Shaping, third is the Unknown, and last is the Word."
I could only hope that the Gedri would see it the same way.
There were a number of our folk ranged along the edge of the field, where a shallow little stream danced over stones, drinking thirstily. I wandered among the weary souls, scattering praise and encouragement where I thought it would be accepted.
As I passed, I noted that the great sealed golden cask containing the soulgems of the Lost was safe, resting now between the forelegs of my son's beloved mate Mirazhe. The Lost! The cursed legacy of the great evil that was the Demonlord, the reason the Kantri left Kolmar so long ago. Born a child of the Gedri, the Demonlord sold his name and his soul for a terrible power over us. In the dreadful final battle fully half the Kantri alive in those times, two hundred of our people, had their soulgems ripped from them by demons. They fell from the sky, reduced to the size of mere younglings, and the powers of speech and reason were taken from them; it was that day upon which they were first called the Lesser Kindred. The Demonlord was eventually destroyed--but he died laughing. It is widely believed even now that he will return to trouble us one day. In the normal way of things, when one of the Kantri dies, the soulgem shrinks to a quarter of its sizeand resembles a large faceted gemstone. Every soulgem is retained reverently, for they are the means by which, through the Kin-Summoning, we may bespeak the Ancestors when need arises. When the soulgems of the Lost were gathered up, however, it was seen that they flickered with some unknown inner fire. From that day to this we have tried to contact them, but neither the Kin-Summoning nor truespeech nor heartfelt prayers to the Winds have made any difference.
Mirazhe managed a nod to me, and lifted one wing slightly to show the sleeping form of her youngling Sherók. I breathed again. Strange, is it not? I knew that Sherók must be well, but it was not until I saw him safely asleep with his mother curled round him that my heart believed it. A little beyond Mirazhe, piled carefully on the ground, were the lansip trees we had brought with us, the only remembrance of our old home. The Gedri prized lansip, leaf and fruit, beyond all imagining. For thousands of years it had grown only on the Dragon Isle that lay now below the sea. I foresaw a thriving trade in a few years, if we managed to plant the trees quite soon. If they would grow here. The poor creatures who had borne them hither also slept, even more tired than the rest.
Their weariness was not to be wondered at, for they had flown high and far for the best part of three days and nights, without cease and without hope of rest--and before that, two full days of flight to reach the tiny isle where we had rested and drunk from a small, brackish pool. None had eaten since the fires of the earth had taken our island home from us, and although we do not normally require large amounts of food, we were all in desperate need of sustenance.
Here, however, came one in whom pride was stronger than exhaustion--Idai, weary but unbowed, striding towards me from the eastern side of the field. She it was who, following me, had led the Kantri through the everlasting Storms and across the wide expanse of the sea. I walked to meet her and bowed formally in the mingled Attitudes of Joy and Praise, in acknowledgement of all that she had accomplished.
"Iderrisai! My heart rejoices to see thee safe," I said aloud,adding in truespeech, "Safe and well, and with all our people. It is a great thing that you have done, Idai. You will be remembered among the Kantri forever."
"I thank you, Hadreshikrar," she said gravely, aloud. She remained silent otherwise. I turned to follow her gaze--ah. Yes, she would not bespeak me on seeing him, lest truespeech betray her deeper thoughts. The Gedri--no, human, I must remember--the human called Varien approached us swiftly from the edge of a small stand of trees in the west. Varien, the Changed One. He who had lived a thousand years as Akhor, the Lord of the Kantrishakrim, soulfriend and dear as a son to me, and who for most of his life had been dearly loved by Idai. Poor Idai. Akhor had never returned her love or encouraged her regard: but even among the Kantri we cannot choose whom we will love. It was less than a full year past that he had been changed, through a kind of death and rebirth, impossibly, from his true form to a creature with the form of the Gedri children, but with his soul and his mind as they had ever been.
I glanced again at Idai and knew the pain in her heart, though she tried to hide it. Truespeech does not always require words, after all. She had loved Akhor for most of her life, knowing full well that he did not return that love but unable to deny her own heart. For her to see him now was little less than agony, It was a measure of her greatness of soul that she did not hate Lanen, who had caught Akhor's heart between one breath and another while yet he was of the Kantri. She and Lanen had made their peace: but now Lanen was stolen away by great evil, and all Akhor's thought and all his mind and all his soul were focussed, waking and sleeping, on getting her back. A lesser creature would have rejoiced inwardly at Lanen's misfortune. Idai has a great soul.
I had known Akhor from his birth, a thousand and some winters past; he was soulfriend to me, and apart from my son was the only soul on live who knew my full true name. He had possessed the form of a human for less than six moons. It was still very hard for us all to accept, this strange being who was undeniably Akhor in his soul but withal so very different. So small, so fragile! Iprayed to the Winds that he would not be so short-lived as the children of the Gedrishakrim usually were. By all rights he should live yet another thousand years, in the common way of our people.
Varien hurried over to meet us. Idai bowed her head low, and without thinking he leant over and stretched out his neck as if to greet her in the Kantri manner. The very feel of it must have stricken him wrongly, though, for he swiftly stood upright. Instead, he reached out with his hand and placed it, oh, so gently upon her cheek, where the solid faceplates of my people curve back to protect the great vein in the neck. She trembled a little at the contact.
"Idai! Oh, welcome and welcome, my namefast friend, my heart soars at sight of thee," he said. He dared to gently stroke her dark copper faceplate, gazing into her steel-grey eyes. "When we parted I feared I would not see you for many long years, and lo, even in this dark hour, the Winds have sent you as a flame to brighten my soul's darkness. It is good to see you, Iderrisai." He smiled then, and his soulgem--no longer part of him, as nature meant it, but worn in a circlet of gold that held the stone against his forehead--burned for that moment bright and clear. "I see you were not content to let mine be the only great tale of these times! You and Hadreshikrar have between you accomplished a work that will be remembered as long as our people live and memory lasts. You have brought us all home." He leaned forward and touched his soulgem briefly to Idai's faceplate, a deeply personal gesture used only between the nearest of friends.
I was grateful that Idai closed her eyes in that moment, for Varien's sake. He could not see the years-long sorrow rise in them, pain and weary loneliness that struck my own heart in the instant. I had to close my eyes against the depth of it. By the time Varien pulled back from the contact, though, Idai was in control of herself again.
"You are well, then, Ak--Varien?" she asked. Her voice wavered only slightly. Varien might well put it down to her weariness.
"I rejoice to see thee and my people safe at last, but in truth, I tell thee I have seldom been worse, Idai," he said, and as his voice deepened I heard the anger in it rising. If he had been in his oldshape his wings would have begun to rattle. In this body, his hands curled in upon themselves and the skin of them began to turn white. "Hath Shikrar told thee of the great ill that hath befallen us, Lady? That a demon-master hath stolen away my beloved from my very side, and I helpless to stop him?" A tremor in his voice betrayed the depth of his feeling. "And that I know not where she bides, or whether she is quick or dead?"
Even I was shaken. Varien in his fury was using the style of Gedri speech he had learned hundreds of years before. "I have told her, Varien," I said aloud, adding silently, "Your speech betrays your anger. You must not fail now, Akhor: We are here and our strength is yours. Do not let your heart's wound blind you. We cannot fly in force and destroy this Berys at once--he is a demon-master and we know not the extent of his strength. Remember the Demonlord, who destroyed the half of our Kindred upon a single day! I do not counsel cowardice, my friend, only prudence. And such a battle, such a war, would not be kind to those innocents around about. We are new-come to this land. Would you arrive as a destroyer?"
"I would arrive as one bent on saving the life of my beloved!" he cried.
"We will find Lanen, by my soul I swear it," I answered solemnly aloud, "but we must go softly at first, lest we break all hope of living here in peace with the Gedri, or break ourselves like fools upon the power of this demon-master."
"Oh, I expect you'll have a good chance of living in peace here," said a calm voice from near the ground. The Lady Rella stepped forward and bowed briefly to Idai. "Welcome--you're the Lady Idai, aren't you?" Idai nodded once, and Rella grinned. "I remember you from the Dragon Isle. I don't think we ever exchanged names, but Lanen told me about you. Well-met, Lady, and welcome to your new home. I for one am delighted to see you."
Idai hissed her amusement. "Rrrellla, the strong arm that kept Llanen safe from her own kind. Yess, I recall you. Well-met, and I thank you for the welcome, but I do not know if it will outlast my first request" She turned to me. "Have you eaten, Hadreshikrar?"
I instantly wished she had not said that, for of a sudden I was aware of my empty belly and a raging hunger surged through me. "No," I replied shortly, and both Rella and Idai laughed as a noisy rumble from my interior nearly drowned out my answer. "No, I have not eaten, apart from a morsel here and there since I arrived. The prospect of fighting a Raksha has sustained my spirit, but my belly longs for meat."
"As does mine. We have none of us eaten since we left the Dragon Isle sinking into the sea below us, and we have endured many days of desperate toil. We are hungry and we are weary, Shikrar, and we thirst. Whither shall we go now to find sustenance?"
"This is where I come in useful," said a quiet voice, and a man with golden hair and light blue eyes stepped forth. He bowed to Idai, his eyes taking in the host of the Kantri behind us. I was impressed that he managed to contain his astonishment as he spoke. "I'm Willem of Rowanbeck, but only my mother calls me Willem, I'm Will. I live near here, and I know of a farmer not ten miles away with a herd of good cattle. If you have anything to trade for them, I suspect Timeth wouldn't mind being the first in Kolmar to have dealings with dr--with you."
Idai stood in Concern. "We have brought the lansip trees, Shikrar, they are safe, but they must be planted soon and cared for. When once they are established the leaves and the fruits will serve us for trade--but what we shall do in the meantime I cannot imagine. What else have we to offer the Gedri?"
"There is khaadish, Idai," said Varien, at the same time that Rella said, "You have gold, don't you?"
"Khaadish?" asked Idai. Concern flowed into Confusion. "What might be done with khaadish?"
"Even a very little of it can do a great deal, Idai," said Varien. "It is peculiar, I know, but the Gedri value khaadish greatly. A small quantity, enough only to fit in my hand, will purchase food and a place to rest for us all." He turned to Will. "Would that suffice for your friend?"
Will raised one eyebrow, and I marvelled again at the mobilityof Gedri faces. "I expect he'll faint dead away. I don't think he's ever seen gold before. But his farm is two long days distant, in the steep hills to the north--"
A hiss of amusement from behind me took me unawares, and Kédra, coming up beside me, laughed. "Ah, my father, it is good to know I can still surprise you!" he said. We touched soulgems by way of greeting, as only parent and child ever do. "You are not known to me, friend, but as you stand with Lord Varien and the Lady Rella I trust that you are a good soul. I am called Kédra, the son of Shikrar."
"Willem of Rowanbeck," said Will, bowing. "I am glad to meet you, Kédra, and I don't want to be rude, but we were talking about finding a way to get you and your friends something to eat."
"That is why I arrived so swiftly to offer my services," Kédra said, his eyes alight. "I heard your objection. A two-day walk uphill for one of the Gedri is a very, very short way to fly, I suspect. Will you come with me in token of our good faith, and treat with your friend on our behalf? For I have khaadish with me." He opened his hand, and there between the great claws was a small lump of khaadish, gleaming and pretty enough but useless for most purposes. Why the Gedri value it I will never know.
Will, however, choked. "Sweet Lady! Here, Kédra, Timeth is a friend of mine, but even I won't lie for him so far!" He bared his teeth in the Gedri expression of friendship. "That would be riches beyond his wildest dreams. Half of it would be very generous payment indeed for his kine and a sure guarantee of a place to rest for the next few months, while he gets his breeding stock back to work. There is a good stream on his land as well. But for pity's sake don't offer him that dirty great lump of gold! His heart would stop at the sight of it."
Kédra bowed, his eyes alight with amusement. "Are you of the kindred of Lady Lanen?" he asked. "Your words remind me of hers. Very well." He carefully cut the lump of khaadish in half and dropped it in Will's outstretched hand.
"That's more like it," said Will.
"And now, Master Willem, will you trust me to bear you?"asked Kédra. "I have flown thus before, carrying one of you Gedri."
"Aye, and you managed well enough then," said Rella, her voice light. "You never dropped me once."
"Mistress Rella!" cried Kédra, bowing to her. "It gives me joy to see you."
"Same here, my lad. Welcome. You can trust him, I reckon, Will."
Kédra hissed his amusement. "I thank you for the recommendation. Come, Master Will. Shall we go swiftly? Be assured, I know how to counterbalance with a weight in my hands--and my young son is very, very hungry."
I couldn't help it. I knew it was rude, but I hesitated. No matter what Rella said those claws were bloody huge. This one wasn't nearly the size of Shikrar, thank the Lady, but it was still immense. And it--he--wanted to carry me in those--Hells, it would be like travelling in a cage of swords.
Hmmm. It had carved gold like butter with a single claw.
A cage of sharp swords, wielded by a giant.
Kédra didn't rush me, though; he just watched and waited. I had come to like his father, Shikrar, over the few days I had known him. For all his overwhelming size and power, I was beginning to see in Shikrar simply another soul. Different, having lived a different life in a very different body, but for all that there were similarities. He had destroyed the Raksha that attacked us up on the High Field in the hills, as we would have if we had had the power; he treated all of us poor weak humans with respect, when clearly he had no need to do so; and it was obvious that he was worried sick about his friend Varien, and about Lanen.
Besides, I had raised my dragon-daughter Salera from her earliest youth, when I found her dam dying in the woods and she so lost and alone. I had fed her and raised her until she had grown to her full stature and left me, but I knew her and loved her as she didme. She trusted Shikrar absolutely. Surely I could trust his son?
And the idea of flying--ah, now. All those dreams of soaring made real. That was temptation.
I swallowed my fear. "Very well, Master Kédra. I'd be pleased to come with you and show you the way."
Kédra nodded, and it looked very like approval. "It is well. Come apart with me, then, and tell me where this farm lies."
"Right now? I mean--I--don't you need to recover a bit first?" I asked nervously. For now it was come to the point, my palms were moist with sweat.
"The need of my son for food is greater than my own need to rest, though I thank you," said Kédra. I wondered if that was amusement I heard in his voice. "Come, let us go a little apart. I will need room to take to the sky. And perhaps I should warn you, it may be a little violent at first."
"Aye, well, birds always seem to have to flap harder when they're taking off, I suppose it makes sense," I said, only realising that that might come across as an insult after I'd said it--but no, it was much, much worse than an insult. He was curious.
"Flap?" asked Kédra. "What means 'flap'? I do not know the word."
"It means to--to--you know, move your wings fast," I sputtered, gesturing uselessly, trying to avoid what I knew was coming, but Kédra was none the wiser. I sighed. "Like this," I said, and I swear to you, there in front of all those noble people and ancient dragons I started flapping my arms, as you do with childer, pretending to be a bird.
Great peals of laughter rang out from away behind me, and I swear that wretch Aral's was the loudest, but Kédra gave a great hiss and nodded. Thank the Lady I'd learned that hissing is the way dragons laugh or I'd have run a league. Hells take it, his teeth were huge.
"It is a good word. Yes. I shall have to flap harder to leave the ground," said Kédra. "Shall we go?"
"Aye," I said. The sniggers coming from the direction of my friends stiffened my backbone as we walked a bit apart from therest and I pointed out the direction Timeth's farm lay in and tried to describe the way there. The memory of looking like an idiot helped me steel myself to step on to the palm of Kédra's hand. His other came around to protect me, and with a sudden leap and a series of wrenching jerks we were in the air.
Blessed Lady aid me, I'm for it now, I thought as I fought to keep my stomach under control. I'm going to have to come back with him, too.
I went to visit her, the day before it shattered. It would be my last chance. I wanted to gloat.
It wasn't as if I had known her. Hells, I only met her the autumn before, as a grown woman, and I only had the word of Berys's demon informers that she was my child As far as I was concerned, she was the price to be paid to end my pain and no more.
Don't ask me why I went down there. Hells knew she'd caused me enough trouble. I think I was just--curious. I expected to find her proud independence laid low by helplessness, and I was looking forward to seeing that. However, as I am not a fool, I took with me one of the large armed guards that Berys had infested the place with. In case she made trouble. I had just enough experience of my daughter to know that she might well try something stupid.
We were, after all, still in the College of Mages at Verfaren, where Berys was the respected Archimage. He did not wish to reveal himself until all was prepared, so he kept Lanen in bespelled silence that she might not cry out and alert some passerby or use Farspeech to call for aid from the damned dragon that was somewhere up in the hills a few miles away. I persuaded Berys to change the nature of her silence at midday that I might speak with her in private. For that brief hour her voice would work as normal within her cell, but nothing she said in Farspeech could get beyond the walls. He didn't like doing it, but he owed me that much.
I even took her food and drink. Berys didn't want me to do that, either. He was still nursing a grudge and a sore throat fromwhen she tried to strangle him, but I finally convinced him I needed her alive and healthy to pay off the demons later that night. The College cook was most generous when I requested a tray of hot food to take away to my chambers. The woman seemed pleased that I was finally hungry. I hadn't been hungry for months. I think I had some idea of a last meal for a condemned prisoner.
I remembered just in time to wear the amulet that Berys gave me to ward off the Rikti he had set to attack anyone who opened the door. The guard took up his station just outside. I left the door a little ajar, in case I needed him: out on the Dragon Isle she had knocked me unconscious with one blow I didn't care to risk that again.
The cell was small and simple, originally meant for solitary study. Moving the locks from the inside of the cell to the outside had been all that was required to make a serviceable dungeon. Thick stone walls in good order, a tiny window for light and air, a heavy old wooden door bound with iron. It was enough.
She was asleep. Berys's spell was set to change only when I entered her cell, so she never heard the door being unlocked. I made no sound. The scent of the food must have roused her, or the change in light--in any case, she rose swiftly to her feet, and almost as swiftly staggered back.
I had forgotten until the moment I saw her astonishment that the last she had seen of me was when I was out of my mind. Helpless, in fact. Perhaps there was some symmetry there.
She stood and stared at me, openmouthed, as I put the tray down on the desk where she had been sleeping.
"Marik?" she whispered, and flinched in shock.
At the noise, as it happens.
"Sound--what--VARIEN! VARIEN, TO ME!" she screamed, staring wildly around the room as if she expected to see someone else hidden in the shadows.
"Save your breath," I sneered, quite pleased at her desperation. "Your voice won't go beyond these walls. And neither will your thoughts." She shut up then, staring with wide eyes. "Oh,yes, we know about your Farspeech. Or to be more exact, I know about it." I grinned at her. "Do you know, your dragon friends did me a great service when they broke open my mind. I can hear them, just like you." I didn't bother to tell her that I only heard two of them clearly and could not respond. Only enough information to make her worry harder. "Not that I thank them for it," I added sourly. "They never damn well shut up."
She gazed at me for a moment in silence, completely unreadable. It was annoying.
"What?" I snapped.
"I have that problem too. Or I did, before Berys cut me off from sound." She stood and began to pace. "Goddess above, but it's good to hear something."
"Keeping you quiet is no more than a sensible precaution," I replied, trying to ignore a flash of memory--the vision of a head larger than my body, jaws agape, coming for me. I shuddered in my turn. "I remember that big silver bastard, the one I half killed, coming through the wall. I'd rather not have that happen here."
When first I tried to honour my bargain with the demons, out on the Dragon Isle, I nearly managed it. Berys's apprentice, Caderan, had summoned the demon in question, Lanen was given up to it, and I thought all was accomplished--when that bloody great damned silver dragon came through the flimsy wooden wall of the cabin, destroyed the demon, and stole away my sacrifice. Caderan and I ran for safety, but that moment has haunted my nightmares ever since.
"You are right to fear it," she said, calmly. I was impressed despite myself. "I don't think you'd live through the experience a second time."
I laughed in her face. "Forgive me if I'm not impressed by your threats, girl," I said. "Besides, why are you wasting your time talking? Your supper is getting cold."
"Do you really think I'm going to eat anything you've brought me?"
"Idiot. Why should I bother with drugs or poison? Berys has spells for that."
"True enough," she said grudgingly.
"It's just food. I thought you'd be hungry."
She frowned her suspicion at me, but I expect the smell rising from the tray soon made up her mind for her. Cutlets of pork in a mushroom gravy. Berys must not have fed her since he captured her two days since, she ate like one starving. It gave me a strange sense of satisfaction to watch her eat. Like feeding the goose you know will soon grace your table at Midwinter Fest.
When she had mopped up the last of the gravy with the last of the bread, and finished the jug of watered wine, she sat back and gazed at me as if waiting for something. After a moment she said, "You know, I find it hard to believe you've had a rush of fatherly feeling, Marik," she said. "Why are you here?"
"Why not?" I replied. "I'm bored, girl." To my own surprise, it appeared to be true. With Maikel gone, I had no one to talk to apart from Berys, and he was as boring as last week's soup when he wasn't indulging in his deep-laid schemes. I didn't care to spend more time in his company than was necessary. At the best of times Berys made my flesh crawl. Still, he was useful. I would soon be rid of my pain at last! Yes, this girl was going to be of use to me in many ways. I promised the soul of my firstborn to demons before I knew she existed, long years since, when Berys and I created the Farseer. I had been suffering for it ever since. Demons don't like debtors.
"And so you come to me. Goddess help us all." She stared at me, shaking her head. "How did you manage to get your mind back? Last time I saw you, you were drooling."
"Thanks to your scaly friends," I snapped. "Berys helped me out of that particular hell."
"He left me," I said shortly.
"Wise man," she said. "I suspect everyone you have ever known has left you. I'm just surprised he stuck around for so long. He was a good man." She looked straight into my eyes. "And he seemed to be genuinely attached to you." When I didnot respond, she shrugged. "Ah, well. There's always one idiot in every crowd."
I stared back at her and said angrily, "You fool. Have you forgotten that I have been in constant pain since your mother stole that Farseer? I promised my firstborn to the demons as the price of its making, and in a few hours you will pay with your soul." I felt a nasty grin spread slowly across my face. "There's a bit of doggerel verse Berys keeps quoting: 'Marik of Gundar's blood and bone shall rule all four in one alone.' You're quite useful, really. Your soul to demons to ease my pain, your body to wed Berys so the prophecy is fulfilled and he rules with you. So insult me all you like. I win. You and your harlot mother lose."
I should have known, I had been expecting something of the sort, but I still didn't see it coming. She stood all in a moment and struck me across the face as hard as she could, which given her height and her strength was impressive. I cried out but was too taken aback to react instantly and she had time for another blow. I reeled, but somehow managed to grab her wrists and stop her before she could land a third. We were both furious, but before I could repay her in kind she arrested my gaze with her own. Her eyes were blazing.
"Is that it, Father?" she asked, her voice a low snarl. "Is that what you wanted? Penance for your evil? Punishment for the blackness of your soul, that would murder an innocent babe without a second thought and deliver the life of your only child to demons? And all as payment for a thing of no use in the world save to make you richer!" She fought to free herself, but I had been battered enough and held her still. "How dare you call my mother harlot, you bastard!" She kicked my shin. The pain made me yell, and the guard opened the door.
"Sir?" he said.
"Will you leave off?" I asked her.
"I won't touch you more," she said, and wrenched free of my loosened grasp. She went as far away from me as possible, to the far side of the little cell, and leaned against the stone wall, her armswrapped around herself. "You can send your tame bear away."
I nodded to the guard. He backed out of the room and pulled the door nearly closed.
"They told me you never even knew your mother," I said. Even as I spoke I wondered why in all the Hells I didn't leave. What was I doing there? What possible reason could I have to speak to this woman?
Curiosity, I thought. Pure and simple. She's your daughter, until they take her soul away in a few hours. This is your last chance to find out what she's like, before you rejoice that she's gone.
What in the name of sense was he doing? I couldn't fathom it. Even now, years later, I have no idea what in all the world he was after that morning. Perhaps he didn't know either. Perhaps there is a connection of blood and bone that cannot be entirely denied even by the most soul-dead.
Or maybe he just wanted to taunt me one last time.
And to be honest, I was less concerned with his reasons than with my own anger. I had not pulled my punches when I hit him. I should have been afraid of killing him, but to say truth I wanted to kill him. There was a part of me that was annoyed that I hadn't even managed to knock him out this time. By fortune, by chance, by the fact that I'm terrible with a sword, I had never killed anything on two legs that didn't also have wings, but the fire in my heart blazed at full fury and I would gladly have murdered him then and there if I had the chance.
For the moment I did what I could to answer his questions.
"Whoever 'they' are, they're right. I don't remember her. She left when I was no more than a year old and never came back."
"Then why such a spirited defence?" he asked.
"Good question," I replied. I stood up again and started to pace, rubbing my sore knuckles, trying not to let Marik see that I was shaking with anger, lest he take it for trembling in fear. "I'm not certain myself. Perhaps I cannot imagine that anything shedid twenty-four years ago could be as dark an evil as that which you plan for me. Perhaps I'd defend the Lord of the Seventh Hell himself if you cried out against him." Then, without thinking, I added, "Perhaps it's because I'm--Hells take it--" I forced myself to stare him straight in the eye. "You can't wed me to Berys, I'm married already. I was bloody well going to have children one day you bastard, and of their two grandparents I know which one I would have let them meet."
Goddess help me, I'd almost let slip the one piece of information I didn't want Marik and Berys to know. I always say too much when I'm really angry.
"Oh, that's a small problem. Whoever your husband is, he surely won't be that hard to kill. Take heart, Daughter," he mocked, falsely cheerful. "You might yet bear children, though to be honest I've never thought of Berys as one to indulge in so--normal an activity." He smirked. "In any case, whatever of you is left is unlikely to enjoy it much."
"Curse you to all the Hells," I snarled, "and take Berys with you for good measure."
"Too late, in his case," he said lightly, and called for the guard to come get the tray. When the guard opened the door, the instant he stepped in, I cried out in truespeech as loudly as I could. "Varien beloved Berys holds me captive, I'm here I'm here to me my love swiftly, they steal my soul this night come succour your childer swiftly to me to me!"
Marik slammed the door behind the guard and whirled to face me, his eyes blazing. "You tricksy bitch! 'What might have been,' indeed--you are with child even now!" His grin had a certain mad edge to it "And Berys and I are neither of us such fools as to let you yell for help. The guard and I are the only ones will have heard your shout, and the spell against Farspeech encloses the room no matter if the door is open or shut." He laughed. "Berys will be delighted. Hells, I've never heard you before!"
I strode the two paces across the room to strike him down, but he danced away from me and called out for the guard. Nothing happened.
I felt a terrible grin distort my face, the match of Marik's. "He can't hear you. You shut the door, idiot. And you can't get to the door save through me."
He swore and tried to get around me, but I never moved. "My soul to the Lady, you're a dead man, Marik," I said. My voice surprised me. It was quite a lot higher than my normal speaking voice, very strange indeed. But very clear. "Shrive yourself, for by all I hold sacred I swear, I am going to kill you with my bare hands."
At least he didn't waste time saying something stupid like "You wouldn't dare." I suspect it was quite clear that I bloody well would dare, and then some. "The guard will be back any moment now, I was right behind him," he squeaked, dancing away from me as best he could in that small space.
"Then I don't have very long," I said, and lunged. I caught an edge of his tunic and hauled him towards me with all my strength. He was no weakling himself, but somehow all the helplessness, the fury of being a prisoner, and now my desperate fears for my unborn babes, combined to give me a strength I had never known. I tripped him up so that he measured his length on the floor and fell heavily on top of him, kneeling on his chest with my hands about his throat. I squeezed with all my strength. He turned red, then purple, awfully quickly. I never let up, not for an instant.
Not much longer now, surely. My arms were starting to shake. I thought of my children sacrificed on Berys's obscene altar and squeezed harder.
To my astonishment, he stopped fighting to get my hands away--he was reaching for something--
With a snap as of breaking crockery and a hiss like an angry snake, the room was suddenly full of Rikti and they were attacking me.
I couldn't do it. I couldn't keep my hands around Marik's throat. The instinct to survive is too strong. I struck out at them as best I could, but they were all around me, biting and clawing at my back, my arms, my face. I got up off of Marik and ran to putmy back against a corner. I was bleeding in a dozen places. One dove directly at my eyes, its claws extended. I turned my head away and threw up my arm to protect myself, and though it clawed my arm, it didn't get any further. I dared to look again.
Marik was gone, the door just closing behind him. There didn't seem to be nearly as many demons as there had been, and the half dozen that remained didn't seem to be in a hurry to attack me. What in the world?
I waited. The nearest seemed to make up its mind and flew at me swiftly with extended claws. I grabbed for its leg, meaning to smash it against the wall, but I missed. It didn't. I felt the claws bite deep, cried out with the pain, saw the stream of red as my blood flowed from the slash--
And then the damned thing burst into flame and disappeared.
The others cried, "Kantrishakrim!" and winked out of existence as swirftly as they had arrived.
I tried, with teeth and shaking hands, to tear bits off the bottom edge of my tunic to use as bandages. It was the only time I cursed at the quality of my clothing, because I couldn't do it, the cloth was too strong. At least it kept my mind off of things for the time it took to make the attempt. The bleeding eventually stopped on its own, but my wounds burned and stung as though I'd scrubbed them with nettles.
And I was left alone with my thoughts, tumbling one after another like a torrent down a fall. It was to be tonight. It was already past noon. Marik knew I was pregnant. I was exhausted, shaking from the effort, and badly wounded by the demons. I crouched in a corner, full of fury unspent, angry at myself for not finishing the job--and deep inside there was a terrible quivering in my belly as I began truly to despair for the life of my babes. I feared I had only hours left to live.
It wasn't until much later that I realised what the Rikti had said. Kantrishakrim. It was Old Speech for "the Wise People," the Greater Kindred.
Seems I had changed rather more thoroughly than I had thought.
As Kédra left, Varien and Rella begged my pardon and returned to the other two Gedri who waited still at the field's edge, near a small wood not far away. I took the chance to look about me. Shikrar was well enough, despite a few injuries that plagued him yet. When all had been resolved, he would surely fall into the Weh sleep for a few years and all would be well when he woke. It would be difficult, for being new-come to this place we had as yet no knowledge of where we might establish our Weh chambers. We are desperately vulnerable during the Weh sleep: it comes upon us whether we will or no when we are badly injured, and every fifty years or so in any case, for we continue to grow throughout our lives. While in its thrall we sleep and cannot be wakened, and our armour bums off to allow the new armour, yet soft, to grow. We cannot even guard one another during the Weh, for the guard will be taken by the Weh as well. Now that we were back among the Gedri, it was vital that we find a safe haven.
Shikrar had explained it to me, but I still could not comprehend the bizarre Gedri liking for khaadish, which was the root of the trouble. Where we sleep, we turn the ground to khaadish after some years--it is simply what happens. Khaadish is pretty to look at, shiny and yellow and very soft for a metal, but there are only so many uses for it. The Gedri covet it insanely. We of the Kantri do not forget, and the story is yet told among us of one evil night long ages since, when a helpless child of the Kantri was murdered by marauding Gedri during the Weh sleep for no more than the khaadish she slept upon. From that time, we have sought out hidden Weh chambers, both for our safety and that the Gedri might not be tempted.
I breathed deep in the clear morning. It would not be a hardship to fly over these lands seeking hidden chambers. Kolmar was lush and inviting, what little I had yet seen of it. I would enjoy that particular task.
Kédra bespoke us then--they had already found Will's friend, and had sent Will on ahead. Will, seemingly, had talked him outof simply appearing at the farmer's door. I snorted. Kédra was impulsive as ever, and the flight across the sea had not improved his sense of humour.
Akhor, though--Varien--alas, he was changed yet again. I gazed after him. The joy that had filled him when he left our old home with his beloved was gone. That joy that had sustained me, knowing that he had found his soulmate at last, though all my years of hopeless love fell like dead leaves around my heart. He could barely speak for his anger and he was wild with helplessness.
I could look at Varien no longer and wandered about, trying to distract myself. Rella was rummaging in her pack for something. Beside her stood two other humans, solemn and unmoving, but some creature was joining them from the shelter of the trees. It stood beside them--what--
"Shikrarl" I cried. "Whatever is that bright creature that waits with the Gedri children? It--is it--by the first Wind that ever blew, it looks like--"
"Come, Idai," he said, amusement in his eyes. "Come, I would introduce you to my friend, the Lady Salera."
Shy as a bird the bright one stood as I came near, raw courage holding her unmoving in the face of awe. I lowered my head slowly to look closer--oh, she was of our Kindred, that was certain. She appeared to be no more than the merest youngling. And gleaming in her shining copper faceplate were eyes blue as a summer sky, and a soulgem the same--colour--a soulgem. A soulgem.
"Hadreshikrar, I will beat you for keeping this from me," I swore in truespeech. "Name of all the Winds that ever were. A soulgem. The creature has a soulgem. How has this come to be?"
I could not stop staring, but to my relief it was mutual. Shikrar took refuge in speech.
"Idai, this is Salera, the first of the Lesser Kindred to come into her own," he said, and his own wry amusement was transmuted now to a kind of awe. "She and her--Kindred--are younger than the moon. They were brought into the light of reason but three days since." His voice danced with it. "New-come to the world, new-come to speech and reason. It is a great wonder."
I could barely speak myself. "How, Shikrar?" I asked, never taking my eyes off the littling.
"I was not there, Idai," he replied gently. "Why do you not ask Salera?"
I shook myself and bowed to her. "Your pardon, Salera. I am the Lady Idai. Little one, you are a wonder and a mystery. Of your kindness, will you tell me how you come to be here, as you now are?"
"It was the Silver King Varien and his Lady Lanen who opened our minds," said Salera calmly. "We all were called by some deep song in our hearts, we met all together in the High Field, and--the Lord and the Lady wakened us." She bowed her head briefly, that we might see her faceplate more clearly. It touched my heart, for it was the same gesture every youngling of the Kantri makes for a time after their soulgem is finally revealed. "Where before was darkness, now our soulgems gleam as bright as yours. The Silver King opened our minds to speech that day, and the Lady Lanen guarded the narrow way that we might pass over in safety."
Even Shikrar looked surprised. "I have not heard this version, ldai," he told me in truespeech. "What did she guard you from, Salera? What threatened you?"
"Fear," replied Salera. She gazed at the two of us steadily. "We could barely understand what Lord Varien offered us, but we knew deep within that it was change beyond measure, and that it could not be undone once it was done. It was ... frightening." She fluttered her wings in remembered agitation. "Frightening is too easy a word. Fear, and fear, and fear beyond that. Even I resisted, and I knew that my father was on the other side of that change. But Lanen--she showed us her heart, we saw that she too was Changed and become more than she had been, and the great joy she had in her new life. Her gift was to awaken our courage. It was a great gift indeed."
She bowed slightly then, as if it were a strange movement to her, and said, "If you are answered, Lady, can you now tell me where is my father gone?"
I blinked. "Your father, littling?" I asked, confused, but Shikrar interrupted, "He is gone with my son Kédra to find food for the Kantri. He will return swiftly, I have no doubt."
She relaxed visibly--
"Name of the Winds, Shikrar, they use Attitudes but a talon's breadth removed from our own!" I cried in truespeech.
--and continued, "It is well." She saw that I stood in Astonishment and laughed. "Lady, forgive, you cannot know--Will raised me from a kitling, he is the only family I have ever known." Her speech was a little slow, a little stumbling, and she sometimes managed the more difficult human sounds and sometimes did not. Without thinking I addressed her in truespeech.
"Salera, might I bespeak you? Human speech is difficult, and I know not if you have yet learned our own language."
She sat bolt upright, in the absolute image of Astonishment, and stared wide-eyed at me. Her speech instantly became all but incomprehensible. "How iss thiss done? Hwat iss this hyou ssay? I hear hyourr voice yet you haff not spoken!"
"Hadreshikrar, do you mean to say you have not bespoken this child?" I said, turning to Shikrar in amazement. "You, who are the first always to introduce younglings to truespeech!"
To my delight, he could not answer at first. It is not easy to surprise Shikrar, the Eldest of our Kindred, and it always pleased me when I was able to do so. "I--before she, before they were--oh, Idai, I have not even tried to bespeak her since she and her people awakened!" He turned to her, tenderly, and spoke quietly using the broadest kind of truespeech. "Lady Salera, I beg your pardon. My friend Akhor--Varien--told me that you could not hear him, but that was before you came into your own."
"Hwat iss thiss bespppeakking?" she asked him, her wings fluttering in her agitation.
"Calm yourself, little one," I said, trying to be as gentle as I could. "It is natural for our people. This is the Language of Truth, the language of the mind With it, we may speak to one another when we are far apart, or when we are aloft and the wind will not carry sound between us."
"How isss it done?"
"It is done with thought, littling," said Shikrar calmly, and aloud. "Where most thought is scattered abroad, like clouds in the sky, truespeech is more like to a single star--focussed." He continued in truespeech. "This kind of speech, which we start with, may be heard by all who care to listen. It is the first kind we learn and the easiest to master. There is another kind, whereby we may speak only to one particular soul at a time." He paused a moment. "That usually takes some years to master, but you are not as young as you appear, I would guess. You might achieve that level of concentration much faster than is usual."
"How shall I do thiss?" she demanded.
"Let us begin slowly, and with a warning," said Shikrar, still speaking broadly. I managed not to laugh. I recognised the very words. It was the same speech he had given to every youngling he had ever taught. Teacher-Shikrar indeed!
"Thoughts are truth, and truespeech will reveal your inner thoughts, whether you want it to or no, until you have become accusstomed to it. It is impossible to lie in this speech, for the lie will burn like a beacon, and in any case your underthought will give you away."
"Hwat iss to lie?" Salera asked, in all innocence.
Shikrar bowed. "It is to say that which is not so, little one," he said aloud. "Forgive me. I suspect it is not within you."
She glanced at him shrewdly, for all her youth. "I suspect it is within me if it is within you, Master Shikrar. Though perhaps not yet." She gazed back at me. "I hwill try this truespeech. I cannot sshape my tongue around words sso well ass you." She bowed her head and closed her eyes in concentration.
I heard nothing.
Shikrar, however, had taught younglings for many, many years. "Littling, I cannot hear you." He stood in Patience. "Will you try again?"
"Can you not hear me call my father? He does not answer. Said you not that distance is no bar to this speech?"
"Ah, littling, forgive me!" replied Shikrar. "I never thought totell you. The Gedri do not have truespeech, as a rule. Only the Lady Lanen in all of history is so blessed. I fear you will not be able to bespeak Willem."
"The Silver One, Hfarian, he cannot speak so?"
"Varien is a separate case, littling," said Shikrar. "He is--different."
"And so my father is different," answered Salera. "I have learned his tongue, can he not learn this one?"
"Alas, I fear he cannot," said Shikrar, sadly. "Lord Varien is of our own blood, and has the soulgem he has borne for a thousand winters. The Lady Lanen has been blessed by the Winds and the Lady. You must not hope for this, Salera. It will not come to be."
Salera hissed her frustration, her tail whipping round her. "That is--that is darkness in daylight! Why should this be? It is not hwell!"
"Alas, you are right, littlings, it is not well; but in all the lives of our peoples we have found nothing that may be done to change it."
And she surprised us again. Still, perhaps I was the more taken off guard; Shikrar at least maintained the appearance of calm.
Clearly and angrily she bespoke us both, as she gave a great leap into the clear morning sky. "What use then is this speech, when I cannot use it with the one I love best? I go to find him."
We both stood silent for some time, and Shikrar sighed. "Idai, my friend, I grow old," he said wearily. "What world is this we have come to? That youngling just managed her first words of truespeech most beautifully--"
"I heard her, Shikrar. I expect everyone else did as well," I said wryly. Younglings were not known for subtlety, and Salera's people were apparently no different.
I had managed to raise the shadow from off him for an instant. "Truly," said Shikrar, amused. "She is a delight, that one. And yet, alongside the gift of truespeech that should be so great a joy, she knows now a sorrow that did not afflict her but moments since." He sighed again. "Idai, my friend, what is this place, where Gedriand Kantri are so oddly joined, even for the best of reasons, that the differences between us become a source of pain rather than of delight?"
"Perhaps it has ever been so, Shikrar," said Varien, who had now drawn near with the other Gedri.
"And still, my friend," answered Shikrar, curiously sad, "it leaves me wondering what we have come to in this green land."
"Life, Shikrar," said Varien quietly, his eyes steady. "Life and change. It is well. Perhaps it will be our task to add something unchanging to this mixture, but we ourselves arose in this place. Surely, in ages past, Kantri and Gedri have formed friendships, and the Kantri have grieved for the brief lives of those companions. Should we then seek to avoid the company of our fellow creatures?"
"Her first use of truespeech, Varien. It is a moment for great rejoicing, a step towards a deeper life, and it has brought her only frustration."
"Shikrar, Shikrar," said Varien, managing a lighter tone. "It has been too long since you have taught so young a kit! She will come around to joy soon enough, I promise you. She is very, very young yet." He managed the turning up of the corners of his mouth that the Gedri name a smile. It looked well on him. "But I see you are up to your old ways. Name of the Winds, Hadreshikrar, could you not wait even an hour to instruct Salera?"
Shikrar glanced at me, and I was glad to see a hint of his usual self returning. "This once I cannot claim the honour, Akhor. Idai it was who first bespoke the youngling."
Varien bowed to me. "It was well done, Lady. I never thought to--I have been--"
"You have had your own troubles, my friend. And Shikrar says you tried before and found no response."
"True enough. Salera and her people are a joy and a wonder," said Varien lightly enough, but I heard his voice fall back into sorrow as he added, "but they are not the Lost, my friends. Still our duty to those trapped souls lies unfulfilled. Salera's people, the Lesser Kindred, descendants through five thousand winters ofthe beasts left when the Demonlord ravaged our people, were my great hope for restoring the Lost. I dreamed that somehow we might reunite the creatures with the soulgems of the Lost--I never thought that they would be developing on their own. They are a great blessing, but all my hope for the Lost is now foundered." He shook his head and muttered, "As is so much else."
"You never let up, do you?" said the Gedri female beside him. "Life is short, Varien, or whatever your name is. I know your heart aches, but can you not spare a moment to rejoice in the good when it comes your way?" She bent in half before me. The Gedri bow so awkwardly. "Forgive me, Lady--Idai, is it? I am Aral of Berún, a city far to the east of here." She smiled. "Varien would probably introduce us in a few weeks, but I don't think we have that long."
I gazed now more closely at the two Gedri who stood with Varien. Young as he looked, they looked younger still. Mere children.
Until you saw their eyes.
The girl-child, Aral, had about her a kindly air, and a strange familiarity that I could not explain, but that spoke well of her--indeed, something about her altogether spoke of the Kantri and it inclined me to favour her, but it was the youth beside her who shook me from my complacency. For all his lack of years, for all that I knew so little of Gedri faces, when our gazes locked he seemed for an instant to vie with me. Perhaps he sought to test me in some way, as younglings do on occasion, but for that brief moment he was unguarded, and I drew back. In that instant I had seen a raging torment behind his eyes, as of a searing flame, and a deep sense of power that surprised me. I sniffed, but there was not the least Raksha-trace upon him. This one would need to be watched, though not by me. A thought arose in my deepest heart. Let his enemies beware.
"You shame me, Mistress Aral," said Shikrar. "Your pardon. I am not yet accustomed to the swiftness of your kind. Mistress Aral, Master Vilkas, this is the Lady Idai, known among us for her wisdom. Idai, these two have taught me not to judge by appearances, for they are great Healers in this land."
"Healing is a most noble use of power," I said, gazing full at Vilkas. "I confess to astonishment, however, Master Vilkas, that you two are so at your ease among us."
"We've had practice," said Aral, while Vilkas returned my regard. "We chanced upon Lanen and the rest of them--Lady, was it only a week gone? We were escaping from Berys and his damned Rikti, and when we stopped for food and shelter there they all were, and she in dreadful need of healing." Aral bared her teeth. "We've barely stopped for breath since, but we were there when the Lesser Kindred were awakened." She stood taller. "We helped heal their soulgems."
I listened to her, but I did not look away from Vilkas. "There is a great work behind your eyes, Healer," I said. "It is not unseemly to take a just pride in accomplishment. And unless I am deeply mistaken, it has to do with Varien's beloved."
"How the Hells did you know that?" he asked, but his gaze did not waver either.
I hissed gently. "I am She who Knows without Knowing, littling. That is the meaning of part of my name."
He drew himself up, the very image of the Attitude of Pride if he had had wings. I envied the Gedri their mobile faces, but found it interesting that they used Attitudes much like ours to convey emotions. "Lanen was dying," he said simply. "Her babes are half Kantri, half Gedri. Her body could not support them, so I changed her blood to match theirs. She is altogether changed now, for you cannot change only the blood. The rest has to match."
I dropped my jaw in astonishment and heard Shikrar draw in his breath sharply. "Do you tell me that Lanen is also half Kantri now?" I breathed. "Surely that is not possible!"
"It is done," said Vilkas. "Whether I should have done it or no, I have." One corner of his mouth turned up. "At least now they'll match."
"Name of the Winds, Varien, you never told me that!" exclaimed Shikrar. His eyes were wide.
"I--to be honest, my friend, I cannot say it has beenuppermost in my thoughts," replied Varien. "So much has happened since, I--"
He broke off, for Shikrar had moved his wings into the Attitude of Surprise, with a touch of Accusation, and the movement had caused him pain. I glanced more keenly at Shikrar, for I had finally realised what it was that had so altered him in so short a time, aside from the taking of Lanen. "If these Healers are so great as all that, Shikrar, why have they not healed you?" I replied.
Vilkas--it is hard to explain--he seemed to sharpen, as if something had broken through the mist he kept about himself. "We did not know he was ill or injured. Have I your permission, Lord Shikrar, to see if I may learn what is amiss with you?"
"It is nothing," said Shikrar swiftly, "I am well enough, I ..."
"His right wing is damaged, in the first joint, and the wound he received in his left shoulder last autumn has not had the time to heal as it should," I said, annoyed. "Don't be a fool, Shikrar. Perhaps they can help."
"In all the long ages when our people dwelt together, even the strongest Gedri Healers could do very little for the Kantri," replied Shikrar indignantly. I judged that was better than dwelling on pain.
"Ah, but we have done better since," said Aral, her smile broadening. "When Salera's people were--becoming themselves, we healed every one of them. Mind you, there wasn't much to do, but it did work." She gazed up fearlessly into Shikrar's eyes. "May we have your permission to help? Or would you rather be brave and in pain a bit longer?"
Shikrar threw his head back and a flicker of flame shot skyward. All of the Gedri but Varien stepped back, shocked. Well, perhaps they had never seen a real laugh before.
"Come, then, heal me an ye may," he said, his eyes dancing. "Name of the Winds, these Gedri have no fear!"
"Say no sense, rather, and you'll be closer," said Aral, who had moved some distance away from Shikrar. "What was that all about?"
Varien smiled, banishing just for an instant the deep well ofsorrow behind his eyes. "It was a laugh, Aral, no more. Lanen"--ah, and it was back--"I surprised Lanen so, the first time. It is nothing to fear."
"Oh, I don't know, I think I'm safe enough in fearing that," said Vilkas dryly. "You may not burn readily, Varien, but I do." Turning to Shikrar, he continued. "If you would be so kind as not to be amused while we treat you, Master Shikrar, I would be greatly obliged."
His eyes gleamed, but Shikrar answered, "You have my word, Master Vilkas."
"Do you want any help, Vil?" asked Aral.
"Yes, come on, we both need to learn this," replied Vilkas, already distracted.
It was fascinating to watch him. He who had been all shifting mist, hidden even from himself as he strove to hide his inner self from others, became all in a moment a soul sharp and gleaming, edged and poised for use like a sword. It was extraordinary to behold. "It's all new to me too, the more eyes here the better."
"I will leave you to their tender mercies, my friend," said Varien, and the ghost of a smile flitted across his face. "I expect to find you vastly improved when I return." He bowed and wandered off to speak with Rella and they were soon deep in talk.
Vilkas and Aral began what looked like a swift set of ritual passes through the air. A gentle blue light surrounded them both, until they joined hands. The gentleness was still there, but the light was much stronger.
Aral and I sent our power towards Shikrar. It would be the largest of them we'd begin on, I thought. Why start by halves? I had no idea what we might find. Human anatomy we had learned. Dragon anatomy was a complete mystery.
I was pleased to learn that injury was injury no matter what the vessel. Dragon blood and bone were not the same as in humans,but for all that they were still blood and bone. The wing joint was badly inflamed, and the shoulder was still badly damaged for all that I could see it had been worse. With Aral's help, I had a long look at Shikrar's healthy shoulder, and then we got permission from Idai to examine her, to be certain of what healthy tissue looked like.
"Remember, Vil," said Aral, as with the Healer's deep sight we gazed into the tissues of unwounded Idai, "all of these creatures are completely exhausted. You can see it in Shikrar, but at least he's had a few days' rest. This lady and all the rest of them have just pushed themselves to the very limit to survive--look at the buildup of the waste products in the muscles. At least"--and her voice faltered slightly--"it looks like something that shouldn't be there. Drat." She sighed. "I'm not sure we could find a normal example anywhere just at the moment."
"Mmmm, that's the problem, of course. I'm with you, that particulate in the muscle looks like fatigue poison of some kind. It's clear enough, in any case."
"Yes. The wing muscles are the worst, of course. I'd guess the leg muscles are probably the nearest to their normal state--not the ones that have been holding the legs close to the body, the other ones, between the two farthest joints."
I started to move, without thinking, and a wing appeared before me. The muscles at the edge are not so badly affected, I thought stupidly, before I looked up, blinking away my Healer's sight. Idai's face was before me, and I glimpsed the covering of amazingly tough hide and the blood vessels beneath, stretched over the heavy bone of the mask, before my normal sight returned.
"Are you always so heedless of those whom you heal?" she said, and I was briefly surprised by the fact that I could hear the annoyance in a dragon's voice as clearly as I would in anyone.
"Your pardon, Lady," I said, nodding to her. "I--when we are so deep in the Healer's sight, it is difficult to remember that there is a person--and with you, there is so much to learn--"
Aral appeared by my side and interrupted. "Lady Idai, pleaseforgive my colleague. He concentrates harder than any three people I know. I've seen him get so immersed in what he's doing he forgets to eat for days on end. And yes, he gets a bit heedless of his patients, but that's what he needs me for." She jabbed her elbow, surprisingly subtly, into my ribs. "May we have your permission to examine your--er--back legs?"
Idai obligingly extended a leg, glancing keenly at Aral. "I see. I have known others so lose themselves in their work. Somehow it does not surprise me that males of both our Kindreds have this in common," she said. Aral grinned up at her before getting back to work.
It was clear in a moment when we saw the healthy muscle--we had to look deep, but there is something unmistakable about bodies that are working as they should. The deep tissue of the unused muscles still had that silver glow of health about it, though the bloodstream was carrying the fatigue poisons throughout the body.
"Well, Vil, I can see what needs done," said Aral shortly. "You?"
"Yes. It looks easy enough."
I felt another jab of Aral's elbow, but I'm not stupid. I was just about to speak in any case.
"Our thanks, Lady. With your assistance, I think we can help Shikrar."
Idai dipped her head and a sinuous wave followed down her long neck. Very odd indeed, but she seemed happy enough.
Aral is right. I do tend to lose track of the social graces when I'm working.
We moved back to Shikrar's side. "We'll do it as usual, eh?" I said. "You compress and provide the pain relief, I'll shift the inflammation."
I looked up at the vast form now above me. Truly, things could be easier.
"My lord Shikrar," I said, not knowing if they used such titles. Better than nothing. "Will it please you to come closer?"
His head was suddenly very, very close to mine and I couldn'thelp but flinch. Goddess, he was huge. "Have you any hope, truly, of healing me?"
I almost laughed. Honestly. Everyone always thought they were different. "The Lady's power heals all, my lord, rich and poor alike. I cannot think why it should not heal you."
"But we do not worship the Lady of the Gedri," he said.
"Maybe you should start," said Aral, grinning. "Have we your permission to try, Shikrar?"
He lay right down then, putting his wing gingerly upon the ground. It was still going to be hard to reach that affected shoulder, but--first things first.
"You may try, Aralishaan," he said kindly.
We moved together to the wing joint, getting it clear before our eyes, seeing exactly what needed to be done. We joined hands and sent our power forth.
At least, we tried to. I felt Vil increase his own strength until he glowed even in broad daylight, but it wasn't going anywhere. Our power went no farther than the ends of our fingers.
Shikrar, watching closely, closed his eyes. "Alas. I feared it might be so. In all our history, there have been few of the Gedri who could help us to heal." He sighed. "Perhaps it was too much to hope that the two of you might have been among them."
"Don't move!" I yelled angrily to Shikrar. "Don't give up yet, Vil! We healed Salera's people, I know we can--wait--wait, of course!"
I had felt a slight burning for the last few minutes, where the pouch around my neck touched my chest, and it had finally occurred to me that when we had healed Salera and her kin, I had held the gem in my hand. Perhaps that would do it.
I let go Vil's left hand and fumbled with the pouch and finally managed to get out the large gem. I held it tight in my hand.
I wish someone had told me. That kind of thing shouldn't happen to the unprepared.
The Kin-Summoning is a ritual among our people, requiring days of fasting and preparation and the burning of special herbs and leaves. As a part of our choice at the dawn of Time, we were given a way to remember all that has gone before. The soulgems of our ancestors allow us, when necessary, to speak to those who have died.
Or so it had ever been before. Though on those occasions, it has always been the Keeper of Souls who gave way to the Ancestor being summoned.
Aral, with her Healer's power about her, drew forth the soulgem she had in her keeping. I spared a moment's thought to commend that unknown Ancestor to the Winds, and to pledge silently that I would soon rescue her from this Gedri child who held her all unwitting, when Aral suddenly stood straighter and looked into my eyes. The Healer's glow about her was reduced to a flicker.
"What are you called, my kitling?" she asked, and her voice was as near to the voice of a Lady of our Kindred as a human could manage it.
I could think of nothing to say, though my mind began to race. Kitling, indeed! I was the Eldest of the Kantri alive at that time.
"Come, come, what are you called? I hight Loriavaitriakeris, daughter of Kai the Old and my dear mother Tethrik. You may call me Loriakeris." Aral smiled. "So you see, there is no need to be rude. What is your use-name?"
"I hight Shikrar," I said, entranced. "Lady, I know of you. My soulfriend Akhor is of your lineage, but--but we thought you lost these many ages past!"
"Not lost, young Shikrar, no, no, not lost. Just ... spending my time with the Gedri." Aral's smile softened. "This is not the time for this discussion. I believe that with my help, these Healers can do their work. Do you permit?"
"Yes," I stammered, and in the instant Aral was back, with her Healer's aura deep blue about her, and the soulgem in her hand glowing brilliant ruby.
"Hells' teeth, what was that?" she cried.
"Later, Aral," said Vilkas, his voice stony, his gaze still locked deep in my injuries. "Are you well?"
"How should I be well? Some dead dragon just took over my body, how in all the Hells could I be well!" she yelled.
Vilkas wrenched himself away from studying me and took Aral by the shoulders. "Aral, not now. We need to work. Are you injured?"
"No," she said sullenly, shaking off his grasp. "Just angry."
"Then help me. I need you, and we need that--Loria-what's-her-name. Now."
"I'll do what I can, but don't ask me to work, I'm far too angry."
"That's fine for now," said Vilkas, turning back to stare into my wing. "Just you open that door and let me in ..."
Aral, mumbling, laid her left hand on his shoulder. Her right still held Loriakeris's soulgem--and in the moment, I felt a wave of power, and blessedly, there was no more pain. "You've damaged this ligament," muttered Vilkas as he worked, "shouldn't take long to--there, that's it--now the inflammation ..."
It was fascinating, the link that was forged. Not that he could hear truespeech, or that I could hear him precisely, but there was most certainly a connection. I wondered if other Gedri were aware of it when they were being healed.
And then, as I was concentrating on the link between us, I noticed for the first time a strange undercurrent to my thought. There was something of truespeech in it, but there did not seem to be many words. It was more like a distant murmuring. I wondered briefly if Salera was teaching all her people about truespeech, but that did not seem right--as I have said, younglings cannot normally keep their early truespeech under such control. However, a swift sharp pain, like a stiff muscle unlocking, brought my thought suddenly back to those who were working to assist me.
This Vilkas, I noted, was a most extraordinary soul. I had never heard of such a man. For all his usual reserve, for all that hefought the very essence of himself with every breath, he could yet give of his gifts without stint and without restraint to accomplish this healing. A gift indeed. It was over in mere minutes, but in those minutes, what a change! By the time he had finished, Vilkas was sweating and breathing like prey running from a hunter. He was moving towards my shoulder, but I stretched out my forearm and stopped him. "Enough for now, Master Vilkas," I said quietly.
"No, that's just the easy part, I need to--"
I did not let him move. "It is enough for now. You will exhaust yourself, and that will serve no one."
Vilkas opened his mouth to argue, but Aral interrupted. "Quite right. Thank you, Shikrar," she responded loudly. Then she quietly muttered something to Vilkas that I could not hear. It must have been a powerful argument, for he released his healing power and sat heavily on the ground.
I was concerned for him, but as I opened my mouth to speak to him a great noise arose from behind me. Name of the Winds, does this day hold no peace?
And there, in the back of my mind, a little louder now but still faint, that distant murmuring, like waves on a shingle shore.